The Myth About Stoic Endurance That, Removed, Enlivens A Narrative

A character’s petty response to trials creates surprises and organic, fulfilling twists in fiction.

Here is a useful myth for you to deconstruct: People who do heroic things are dignified while in action.

Dynamic characters change, obviously. Change is often painful, both physically and emotionally.

People respond in many ways to physical pain, but the real rainbow of behavior emerges in humanity’s response to emotional pain.

Exploit the lies, the running away, the fake-bravado, and the shallow hypocrisy that many people will display in the face of overwhelming emotional pain, and you will have hit on a comedic goldmine in your fiction.

Stoic Characterization:

Gorgonzo hung the sheath of the golden dagger against his belt, and drew a deep and heartfelt sigh. This dragon, he reflected, was giving him an unendurable headache. The deeper problem was the troubling and persistent feeling of being in the wrong that Verity brought him. Verity, Gorgonzo thought with gritted teeth, was altogether too pure and innocent. Verity made him ashamed of his previous life.

Petty (and realistic) Characterization:

“I’ve decided to give up our partnership. I want to go back to being a peasant farmer,” Gorgonzo told Verity. He unbuckled the golden dagger that bound him to the female dragon, and laid it at her feet.

Verity stared at Gorgonzo through glittering golden eyes.

“Oh, stop looking at me like that!” Gorgonzo exclaimed. He felt his insides shifting uneasily. “I miss hoeing weeds, all right?”

Verity rose up to her full length, and breathed a sheathing purple flame around Gorgonzo’s body. Unbearable heat flooded his veins, and his heart became calm and still. The purple fire died away, and Gorgonzo glared at Verity. He bent down, and snatched up the golden dagger.

“If we haven’t destroyed the Orb of Malice within a week, I’m really leaving,” he warned the massive dragon. Verity blinked, and watched Gorgonzo stomp towards his crystal armor.

Petty behavior can lend a feeling of immediacy and relatability to your heroes. Beware the myth of stoicism, and embrace (within reason) petty, self-serving, and short-sighted behavior.



Three Little-Known Reasons Ennui Is Perfect For Setting Up Emotional Satiety In Fiction

Here, deep emotional satiety is the feeling of fulness and completion that a reader obtains from a well-constructed piece of fiction.

Succulently-described boredom, as it afflicts your protagonist, is an excellent launching pad for a fulfilling emotional journey (for your readers). Here’s why:

  1. Many readers exist in a state of unrelieved boredom, which is why they read; if your protagonist is similarly fed up with the sameness of life, the reader (as long as the boredom does not last more that a wee set-up stretch) will identify with the protagonist, and form an emotional bond of camaraderie.
  2. So many exciting and suspension-of-disbelief-requiring events unfold in fiction, that setting up a neutral, bland beginning gives your world a measure of credibility. (As in, hey, remember when things were normal around here?)
  3. Character boredom gives us, as readers, a measuring stick of normalcy; we are thereafter able to understand how relatively strange the protagonist finds subsequent events.

In many cases, establishing the baseline of an emotionally-unfulfilled protagonist allows us to bond with the character, and thereafter vicariously experience emotional stimulation when the character does. (If we feel no initial bond to the protagonist, the chain of events can become exclusionary and off-putting; we see the character having adventures, but we are not experiencing those adventures ourselves, because we have not identified ourselves with the character.)

Lack of Ennui-Saturation in the Opening:

Molly drew her X-51 blaster, and put a charred hole in the forehead of the hideous brown monster.

“Molly, help me!” Frank shouted. A twist of fear in her heart, Molly spun, and saw the advancing horde of green-glowing limbs through the door beyond.

“I’ll save you, Frank!” Molly bellowed, and she twisted a pair of energy-pulsar bulbs from her belt.

Ennui-Saturated Opening:

Molly tapped her fingers on the dusty console; three days, she thought. It had been three days since anything at all had happened on this blasted ship. They said I would have adventures, Molly reflected, stretching her legs out beneath her chair. The tips of her standard issue grav-boots scraped the far edge of her work station. I’ve never even gotten to shoot off my blaster, or push the alarm button, Molly thought sourly. She drew a deep breath, and stared at the screen on her station wall.

Two red lights were blinking in the top right corner of the screen. Molly’s shoulders stiffened, but then she slumped down into her chair. She snatched up her link device.

“Frank, are you making fun of me again?” Molly demanded. She was the only eager recruit on the space station, and most of her colleagues were still hazing her, months after her arrival. “Can’t you pick on one of the new guys?” Molly snapped into the link.

Heavy, startled breath came through the other end. When Frank spoke, his voice trembled uncontrollably.

“M-molly. Molly, get out here, now!”

The link cut off. Molly stared down at the device, and then turned her gaze to the big yellow button. She licked her lips, and felt a thrum of pleasure as she lifted her palm, and smashed down on the alarm button.

When you give us a moment, however brief, to settle into the bones of your protagonist’s boring normalcy, we buckle in for a lovely adventure, and are on track towards deep emotional satiety.

Two Little-Known Reasons Rhetorical Continuity Is Bad For Fiction

Rhetorical continuity, in this instance, represents an unchanging landscape of persuasive arguments in support of a cohesive life philosophy.

You might think that rhetorical continuity would be a good thing in your book. Consistency of tone, you might think, and a general aura of building-towards-one-picture-of-life, should all be markers of  competent writing. These are excellent markers of the very beginning of a piece of fiction, but will, if drawn throughout the entirety of the story, become bland and repetitive to the reader.

Bad fiction presents an unchanging, coherent picture of characters and life.

Good fiction starts out with a coherent picture, and a complete emotional state, and then breaks that whole picture into fragments.

Excellent fiction takes the fragments from the initial disruption, and weaves them into a new, and much more vivid photograph of life.

If you are encapsulating a consistent rhetorical tone throughout your work, consider bringing out the big jackhammer of character initiative, and smashing your novel’s rhetoric into tiny bits. Then see if the characters in your story are capable of forming a new rhetoric and social structure from the decimated rubble of your opening.

Here are two reasons to avoid rhetorical continuity in your writing:

One. Rhetorical continuity is bland, boring, and static.

Two. Readers are always searching for meaning. You can contribute towards meaning by demonstrating the potent creation of a new rhetorical norm from the shattered pieces of an old one.

Story beginning:

Michael lived in a quiet street at the end of the wrong side of town. Most of the prostitutes left him alone, but there was one creature, Christoff, who made a habit of lingering near Michael’s stoop. Michael had never been able to determine the original sex of Christoff, and he was not brave enough to ask the sometimes-man about his flamboyant costumes. Michael’s mother refused to visit his rented house, which formed his main motivation for keeping the place.

Rhetorically Continuous ending:

Michael missed seeing Christoff’s constantly changing attire every day as he approached his front door. It is too bad that the aliens took Christoff, Michael thought, as he unlocked his front door. The house was quiet; Michael’s mother still refused to visit, though she claimed now that the aliens had left a funny smell around the whole block. Michael poured himself a glass of stiff orange juice, and sat down in his purple armchair with a contented sigh.

Rhetorically Disruptive ending:

“Man, I told you not to come back here!” Christoff’s eyes widened, as the heavy velvet skirt slushed against the wooden porch.

“It’s my house, Christoff.” Michael drew his glowing green key from his pocket, and unlocked the alien mechanism over the door.

“Dude, your mom will not leave me alone about my hair. I want you to move,” Christoff protested. Michael raised an arm, blocking Christoff from entering the house. “I’ll totally tell the overlords that you’re back,” Christoff mumbled, the thick mascara lowering passive-aggressively over the powdered cheeks.

“You know what I’ll do to you if you talk to the overlords again,” Michael warned. Christoff glared at him. “Just let my mom frost your tips. You might like it,” Michael said, pausing on the doorstep.

“I don’t want to be blonde,” Christoff muttered. Michael glimpsed the flush of a tender blush.

“Hey, she cares about you. I care about you, too. Now go home,” Michael said. He shut the door in Christoff’s face, and dropped his glowing key into his pocket. It’s good to be back, he thought, as he stepped into the generative resting pool of his new living room.

Beware of rhetorical continuity. Break the world of your story, and then rebuild stability from the pieces.


A Creative Way To Turn Mundanity Into Strong Fiction

All characters have to eat, and sleep, and dress themselves. Most characters end up traveling in the course of a story. I think many, if not all of us, have sat down and written something that was relatively dull, but seemed pertinent at the time. You know, like, “[Character] got dressed, and then sat down to eat.”

By providing context to how and why the character’s actions may link into a wider chain of meaning, you can turn mundane action into portentous plot point.

Mundane example:

Jane put on her yellow dress, and went into the kitchen. She poured herself a bowl of cereal, and began to eat.

Compelling example:

Jane’s fingers hesitated as she pulled up the zipper of her yellow dress. Her heart pounded, and her ribs contracted when the fabric tightened over her skin. He isn’t here anymore, she reminded herself, and she pushed her hair over her shoulders.

When she had gone into the cold kitchen, the cereal made a pop-popping noise against the heavy glass bowl. The sound of the cereal pattered against  Jane’s skin, like the feathery impact of many voices.

Any action can become compelling, intriguing, and plot-forwarding, if you provide sensory context for the character’s actions, and if you link the events to the wider meaning of the story.

The Elephant (Of Sex) In Your Novel

So I’ve been learning to read again.

I used to read books by the wagonload. Then, as my life got *interesting*, I gradually stopped reading.

The dry spell lasted for so long that I wasn’t sure if I would ever start reading books again. Maybe, I thought, I would only write books.

Anyway, after much slogging and internal action, I’ve started to read again. It’s been kind of like going back and learning to drive stick, after driving automatic for many years.

Gosh, guys, the sex. I mean, the lack of it. And the simultaneous overabundance of it.

Long ago, I read Anna Karenina. I have never forgotten the way Tolstoy handles Anna’s fall from virtue. The book was seamy after that; it turned moldy, and mealy, as if the social fabric had been consumed with small white worms.

The writing was remarkably accurate. The scene itself was so judiciously spare that, had I been younger, I would not have known that sex had occurred.

And Henry Fielding. I miss the bawdy prudishness of yester-yore. At the same time, I find myself annoyed with authors who dangle the pheromones and then make their characters sit around looking at each other tensely.

Gosh, it’s irritating.

When your characters are falling into sexy-time-mode, please know that your readers are waiting for the massive elephant to be dealt with. You know, the elephant of sex. The elephant who stands in the middle of your third chapter and says, “Dude, look at me! I’m a Sex Elephant, and your characters want to take their clothes off!”

Failing to address the inevitability of sex is not a mark of delicacy, or subtlety. It’s annoying. Jane Austen addresses all the sex in her books, and no one is naked. If Jane Austen can address the enormous elephant of sex in a drawing room full of rigidly polite acquaintances, you can figure out how to address said sex elephant in your novel.

Just do it. Please. Take your authorial pen, and point straight at the elephant of sex, and say to the reader: “Behold! These characters desire sex! Now let us see what they do next!”

Note: Even Chekhov addresses the sex elephant, and his characters (in the plays) are so violently repressed that they are reduced to shooting birds and writing horrible poetry, instead of saying outright, “I would like to take your clothes off, etc.” The sex elephant does not have to be consumed, metaphorically, but it does need to be addressed.